My Hunt for the Surprisingly Elusive “Leica M of SLRs”

My Hunt for the Surprisingly Elusive “Leica M of SLRs”

2560 1440 James Tocchio

For many years I’ve been searching for my perfect camera – a single lens reflex (SLR) camera that feels as good as a Leica M. Yes, despite my aversion to gear-worship and marketing hyperbole, Leicas really are quite amazing. To hold and shoot a Leica M3 is to hold and shoot a purpose-built, precision-made object crafted of intricate metalwork designed with care and assembled by hand, and many serious camera-likers consider the Leica M3 to be the best 35mm film camera ever made. The problem, for me, is that Leica M cameras are rangefinder cameras and I don’t like using rangefinder cameras. I like SLR cameras.

But I deeply appreciate the things that Leica Ms are – solid, compact, with precision innards and a feel of undeniable quality bordering on luxury. To make matters worse, the Leica M cameras aren’t just pretty, well-made objects. They’re also superbly capable tools of photography. They work flawlessly, and the accompanying Leica lenses are among the finest performing optics ever made by human beings. This puts me in a tragic position. I wish I could enjoy using an M, but I can’t.

I know that the two preambling paragraphs above this one read like the histrionic hyperventilations so often spouted by other camera-liking writers and YouTubers who constantly scream about the Leica M being an extension of their eyes and how the Leica has changed their lives. But if you’ve visited this site over the past five years you’ll know that I’ve played devil’s advocate, critically examining Leica cameras in other opinion pieces on this site. But today’s article isn’t in competition with the other articles I’ve written which float the heresy that Leicas aren’t automatically the best. Each article informs the others. Yes, I want people to know that there are flaws in the Leica M. But I also recognize that there’s no finer 35mm film camera, all things considered, than the Leica M. It really is that good.

The important thing to note, before we go any further, is that when I refer to the “Leica M” in this article I’m referring specifically to the M3, M2, and the original M4. These are together the purest Leica Ms. They don’t have light meters and their core functionality is the same. The most important differences between these models are the frame lines and viewfinders. I’ve talked about all of this in my guide to buying a Leica M.

The quest to find an SLR that feels as good as a Leica M sounds like an easy task. Experienced photo geeks are likely reading this sentence while simultaneously picturing in their mind two or three of their favorite SLRs which they consider to be just as good or better than any Leica M. But personal experience tells me that I could successfully debate that they’ve not got the answer. I’ve even asked this very question, “What’s the SLR equivalent of the Leica M?” in a large, private group chat populated by twenty-or-so camera-culture talking heads who you’ve probably read or watched extensively. These people know their cameras. And there’s still no correct answer.

The Olympus OM-1? This camera was literally designed to be the SLR equivalent of the Leica M, and was even originally sold as the “M-1” until a complaint by Leica forced a name change. Chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani was himself a Leica user, and he wanted to develop the exact camera that I’m alluding to in this article. A compact, capable, simple, SLR to be as good as the Leica M. In many ways Olympus succeeded. The OM-1 is a fantastic camera – small, capable, innovative. But if you’ve ever advanced the film advance lever of an OM-1 and then immediately done the same with a Leica M3 you’ll know that there’s no comparison – the Olympus is a great camera, but nowhere near as smooth as the M.

The Nikon FM3a? It’s an amazing camera. Definitely more capable than the Leica M, with its impressive metering modes and its enormous and bright viewfinder. Its perfectly placed and perfectly sized controls are, well, perfect. The film advance is smooth and fluid, rolling on ball-bearings, and it’s a fairly compact machine for an SLR. It’s nearly the ideal manual focus SLR. But then again, it feels a little hollow. The top and bottom plates don’t have the heft of a Leica M. The mechanisms have just an almost imperceptible play that the Leicas just don’t exhibit. And Nikon’s lenses can be big honkers hanging off the face of the camera.

The Pentax LX? Basically the same as Nikon’s FM3a. A great SLR, weather-sealed, excellent metering, some mechanical modes. But it’s prone to mechanical failures in its mirror assembly, and it doesn’t work outside of limited speeds without batteries.

I’ve tried the lesser-known Pentax SL on the advice of Pentax’s former President, Ned Bunnell. Essentially a Pentax Spotmatic without the light meter, the Pentax SL surprised me in how close it came to being the M of SLRs. It’s small. It’s all metal. It’s simple, with a mechanical shutter and no light meter and basic specifications that mirror what Leica did with the Leica M3. And the Pentax SL is incredibly well-made. Solid, hefty bordering on heavy, and able to fit a suite of really excellent Super Takumar M42 lenses. But in the end there’s something lacking in the SL. Like many Japanese cameras, it’s just not as smooth and fluid as the M. Film advance feels a bit resistant, and the viewfinder, impressive in its day, is dim compared to later SLRs. Focusing isn’t excellent. Screwing a lens onto the camera feels like a compromise.

I thought I needed to go further into the past, to an era of old-world craftsmanship and a no expense spared production process. I tried Alpa, the 10d, to be precise. And this camera is indeed a jeweler’s dream. Made by a company who also produced mechanical watch components, the Alpa is built like a clock. But shooting one is a lot like shooting a clock. A grandfather clock. With a neck strap. The camera is enormous, heavy, cumbersome, and clumsy. Not the SLR equivalent of the svelte and perfectly-proportioned M. The search continued.

I’ve tried (and currently use almost exclusively) Leica SLRs. This seems like the obvious answer to a stupid question, and one you’ve probably already whispered to the text on your screen. “James, you moron. The Leica M of SLRs will naturally be a Leica SLR. You idiot.” But I’ve shot every single Leica SLR, and they’re nothing like the Leica M. The Leicaflex, SL, and SL2 are simply enormous. I love them, and they’re incredible cameras with beautiful lenses, but they’re just about the largest manual focus SLR you can buy. They’re not the M of SLRs.

Later Leica SLRs co-designed with Minolta come close. The R series cameras are small for SLRs, very well-made, and extremely capable. But the only fully mechanical Leica R series SLRs are the Leica R6 and the R6.2, and though these cameras are excellent, the way they shoot isn’t. The film advance lever is plastic and feels like it’ll break if we shoot after having a few too many milligrams of caffeine. The shutter release button is soft and spongey, and the lag between shutter press and shutter release can be frustrating. The internals have a few too many plastic components, and the take-up spool in one of my cameras simply snapped in half, which wouldn’t happen to the metal spool of an M.

For the record, my current everyday SLR is a new old stock Leica R5 I found in a secret stash of untouched Leica gear. I love it completely. But I also know that it could die an electronic death tomorrow and I’d be looking at a pricey repair. And it’s also got all of those little niggling problems attributed to the R6 in the previous paragraph. It’s just not perfect.

After years of searching, I’ve begun to think that there may not be an SLR as nice as a Leica M. I’ve started to think that the screaming, frothing hype-warriors wilding out over Leica Ms being the best cameras ever made may have a point. I can’t find an SLR that offers the same combination of compactness, capability, excellent quality lenses, and the most limiting factor of all, the extreme quality of build that the M offers to rangefinder shooters. It’s become maddening. I’ve even contemplated forcing myself to like rangefinder focusing and limited focal length choice, just to enjoy the feel of an M.

Of course, I could always just chill. I could stop being so finicky and critical. Realize that while the OM-1 may not have the smoothest film advance in the world it’s still an incredible camera. Realize that while the FM3a may not be as dense and fine as an M3, its metering modes and amazing Nikkor lenses more than make up for the nearly indiscernible difference in quality. Realize that a Canon Eos Elan 7e can do dozens of things an M can never do, make easier photos with hundreds of lenses, and cost a third the price, even if it feels wonky and dorky and excessively plasticized. Realize that cameras don’t really matter, only photos do. And I do that most of the time. Most of the time I just have fun with whatever I’m shooting, and I don’t even think about Leicas.

But you know what happens when I do that? Eventually and inevitably a Leica M will come through the shop and I’ll take a few moments to fiddle with it. And in a few moments I’m back on the hunt. Because Leica Ms just feel that good. If you’ve never handled an M you’ll be skeptical of this entire article. I would be. But they’re really that good. It’s very annoying.

One of our writers is taking a trip to Japan next month. During a recent online meeting he mentioned this, and that he’d love to bring a camera along for an experience article. He wanted an Olympus Pen F, another Maitani design, this one a half-frame SLR camera with interchangeable lenses. So I bought one for him, and when it arrived here at the office I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Incredibly small, smaller even than a Leica M, made of dense, solid metal, and actually possessing a refined design language that the tool-oriented SLRs I’ve listed above sometimes lack, the Pen F was a real eye-opener.

See, I’d sort of ignored the Pen SLR cameras. I’ve used a handful of Olympus Pen half frame cameras over the years, the ultra rare Pen W, the original Pen, the Pen EE series. They’re okay cameras. Kind of cheaply built. A little too simple. No advanced focusing methodology. Primitive meters on some. Nothing that got me too excited, to be honest. And I’d foolishly lumped the Pen SLR cameras into this same camp. But the Pen F that I was holding in my hands that day in the office, that was something else entirely.

After years of searching, the Pen F may be the Leica M of SLR cameras. It’s so impossibly small. So tight and well-built. Its mirror actuation is clockwork perfection. Its lenses are amazingly small, and by all accounts can create incredibly fine images. I never expected that. Raising the camera to my eye, uh-oh. That viewfinder is not the brightest… That half-frame image area may be limiting… That film advance action isn’t quite as smooth as an M, is it? Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I’ll wait for Josh’s review and maybe try the Pen F myself in a few months. We’ll see what it can do.

I know that there must be an SLR that feels as good as a Leica M. As pure, simple, capable, well-built, and beautiful, with amazing lenses. There must be. And I’ll admit that much of the motivation of writing this article springs from the hope that some wise reader will mention that perfect SLR camera in the comments, thus ending my fruitless and frustrating search. Until then, I’ll keep searching for the perfect SLR. Or maybe I should go out and try to be a better photographer? A novel thought for a different article.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • It’s not going to fit your requirements, but if you want an slr that feels like a Leica, why not try one actually based on a Leica body? One thing is certain – it will make you think about each shot. So, what is it? Why, the little Zenit-C.

  • It’s a tall order for an SLR to match the svelte design, plus the build quality and smoothness of an old Leitz Wetzlar M mount. It isn’t Leica-esque, but I’ve settled on a Nikon FM2n. I just wish it were quieter and the AiS Nikkors don’t have the charm of a Leitz Weltzlar lens.

    Oh buy the way, I’m keeping my Leica M2, which was and still is my favorite of the M mounts .

  • For many years, I never understood the hype on Leicaflex cameras, having had a very bad experience with a new old stock SL2 in the early 1980’s, I have recently been filling out my quite extensive collection of Leica cameras, with a few of their SLR models. I had bought an R9 and was impressed by its technical and ergonomic abilities, if not its appearance (the hunchback of Wetzlar). I then acquired a free “broken” R4-MOT with a 500mm MR-Telyt-R Catadioptric lens, which only needed its mode and power switches cleaning to spring back to life. Finally I decided I really should buy one of the Leicaflexes to round out the range. My daughter’s father-in-law forced the issue, by giving me a mint Leicaflex right angle viewer as a Christmas present. I bit the bullet and bought a beautiful looking SL2, which only needed its viewfinder cleaning. It came with a “free” foggy 35mm/f2,8 Elmarit-R. Both cleaned up well (and very easily) for the massive cost of £20 by Kelvin at Protech Camera Repairs just a few miles away from me. The viewfinder had cleanable spots on the inside and the fogging on the Elmarit was just oil from the diaphragm on either side air surfaces.

    Now that I have a nicely working SL2, that is totally behaving itself, it really does feel like an SLR version of an M camera, much more than my Minolta based R4 or the hideous “half-melted” looking, if effective, R9. I have just put in a roll of FP4 in the SL2 and looking forward to the results. The cost of the SL2, 35 Elmarit-R and repair was a total of £420. In addition I have just spent the same again and ordered a well loved but optically sound 21mm/f4 Super Angulon-R 3 cam lens, which I can use on the SL2 plus my two R cameras and digital Leicas. I am very fond of the 21 mm focal length.

    I used to have a non-SLR Olympus half frame over 45 years ago but the format did not thrill me. James, I think you have already got the answer in your SL2. The only downside for me is the absence of a motor drive for the SL2, which means I have to persuade my dodgy right thumb to operate a lever wind. I have motor drives on my R4-MOT and R9 and also on my IIIa, M4-P and M7.


  • Love my Pen-F. The original model without a light meter has a brighter viewfinder and even a double stroke film advance, for that extra M authenticity.

  • My first SLR was an Asahi Pentax SV with 50/1.8 Takumar, bought at a pawnshop near Ft. Carson, Co a week before I left for Vietnam on my 23rd birthday. The camera was a revelation; basically, a Spotmatic sans meter and a far cry from my old Graphic 35 rangefinder. I used the camera overseas and for some years thereafter before acquiring a Spotmatic II. The old Pentax was very well built and reliable and the Takumar lens very sharp. I did a lot of B&W work and still marvel at the enlargements I made. Many years later, I re-acquired it and intend to run some film through it someday. I also have my original Sekonic CDS meter that I used with the Pentax and it still works.

    I also have had several Nikon F3’s, and consider it to be the smoothest and best-handling SLR I have ever used. The FM’s were not bad either.

    Finally, I went through a Leica M phase myself and agree that it is the ultimate in pure camera/quality. It is fun to do exercises like this and to re-visit the good old days of photography!

    Thanks for a great article!

    • Funny you mention the Pentax SV – it’d probably be my pick for most Leica-like SLR. Equipped with the 8-element Super Takumar 50/1.4 it gives an experience analogous to using my M2. The tolerances aren’t as tight, but it’s every bit as smooth. Agree with the F3 – if it were down to my F3 and an M6 TTL i’d likely choose the F3, size be damned.

      • I really dislike the film wind feel on by my F3s – P and Limited. They are a floppy too light feeling mess. Seriously, check out the mechanical play in the vertical axis – all F3s I’ve used are like that. Due to Nikon putting in ball bearings (or something to that effect) in the mechanism.
        Best I’ve ever used would be any of the Leica R8/9 or Minolta XE7.

        • Worked in a camera shop in 86. The Leica seller there showed a customer how well the arm was designed with play so it would fit each photographer’s thumb.

      • Absolutely agree with the Pentax SV comments. I can’t believe how many cameras I’ve “auditioned” for that Leica “feel” only to have this dependable and cheap old thing drop in my lap. There’s an immense satisfaction in both feel and sound of this camera that confirms to me that my hunt is now over! Well for bodies yes; as for the lenses, now that’s a rabbit hole I doubt I’ll ever tire of exploring.

  • Someone should build a “nice” new 35mm single lens reflex film camera for the modern age of resurgent interest in film photography.

    • Really? Take a look at the recent things that have come out of crowdfunded film camera projects: to a first approximation, junk. Certainly nothing that any of us would prefer to the cameras James has already mentioned. There’s a reason for that: money. The engineering that makes Leicas and Nikons feel great and work beautifully comes at a cost in design and production, which was an investment worth making back in the day when film was what everybody bought. Even so, remember what a ‘nice’ camera used to cost. My modest Pentax ME Super cost me £140 in 1984, which would be £600 or more today; the Nikon FE2 I coveted then was twice as much. The Pentax was my only camera for a long time.

      Film may be growing again now, but from a base dangerously close to zero; the numbers are still tiny in industrial terms. Nobody is going to make the investment in tooling to make another Spotmatic or OM-1. Leica already makes nice film cameras for those who can afford them; Nikon still (I think) makes the F6. But it’s unlikely there’s any tooling left for any others, and it would cost more to create a new set than could ever be recovered in sales to the tiny number of potential customers.

      How many of us here would still be film enthusiasts if the price of entry was $1,000 or more? Old cameras are cheap enough for us to enjoy because those who used to use and covet them are now mostly digital or dead. Let’s not delude ourselves that what we do is any more than a bit of counter-cultural fun. Better to direct our attention to the film makers, who we really do need to keep making stuff for us.

    • Like the Olympus OM-4

  • Unlikely to fit the bill, but an M3 with visoflex (I-V) would be an interesting option

  • I have a ‘sweet’ Leica M2. Don’t tell anybody, but it’s better than the M3. But the masses ‘must have’ an M3. So the M2 flies under the radar. Now, as for the SLR equiv., I have a non-metering Nikon F2. I think that’s one you should check out. Not the original F, the film advance travel seems a bit, um, shaky, but the F2 is solid, smooth and just has enough weight to make you feel like you’re working with a long lasting, precision camera. Some say it’s the best all-mechanical SLR ever made.

    • Agreed on both, I have 2x F2’s and 2x M2

    • I’m sure your M2 is lovely, but surely it’s only “better” than an M3 if you prefer shooting a 35mm as opposed to a 50mm. If you do, fair enough. Personally, I don’t.

      • Just having some fun…Leica people are so serious, gotta laugh at ourselves once and awhile. I’m sure your M3 works for you. My M2 had an M4 viewfinder installed at some point before I bought it 20 years ago. It’s not a special M2 body; but some previous owner made the switch. It compliments my M4-P. I use the remarkable 40mm M-Rokkor on my cameras. It’s like Goldilocks search for porridge…not too wide, not too normal, just right for me. 🙂

        • And here’s my (and possibly James’s) problem with the whole Leica idea: you can change your 35mm for a 50mm — but you should probably change your M2 for an M3 at the same time. 135mm? No problem — just look at that tiny box in the centre. 24mm? Yes, but clip this thing to the top of your camera or you’ll be photographing things you can’t see at all.

          I’m caricaturing, or course. I love the Leica style and form factor, which is which my digital cameras are all flat-topped Fujis. But they have electronic finders that let me go as wide or as long as I like and still get an accurate view. For film, it’s fixed-lens or SLR — and any of the Nikon FE series (yes, batteries and all) will do nicely.

          • Your comment (and Dan’s) is entirely fair. This article inspired me to take my old OM 2 out for the weekend and I’d forgotten how the focusing is an absolute joy. But which of us wants to have only one camera…? Surely an excuse to have two is yet another positive…

          • …and I took out my FM2N — and remembered why I like aperture priority so much! The 1/4000 shutter is cool, though, not that I needed it for today’s subjects. I suppose l could trade it for an FE2 and get some change…?

  • I’ve been using a Minolta CLE rangefinder camera since 1981, but I’ve owned SLRs before that, including the Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic, the Nikon F with Ftn finder, and the Pentax MX. If I could have any SLR, I would get an Alpa 11si with the 50mm Macro Switar lens. My second choice would be the Topcon Super DM. Both of these cameras are very well made and are bigger and heavier than the average SLR.

  • I would vote for the Nikon FM2 or FM3a, the Pentax Spotmatic or LX, or the Olympus OM1 or OM3. The candidates should be either all mechanical or mechanical/electronic hybrid.

  • I’m surprised you didn’t try a Contax S2 or S2b. Seems like the obvious choice: fully mechanical, though takes batteries for a built in light meter, takes Zeiss T* lenses so can compete with Leica M in terms of lens quality.

  • I would suggest to take a look at ALPA cameras. This is a swiss camera maker. For what I have seen so far, this are very well handcrafted SLR with interchangeable lens. Many of them from diffrent manufacturer.
    My point of view on this system is that it is very high quality camera, made out of metal, looks to be less bulkier that japanese counterpart and quite resistant over the time.
    The real thing that put this system aside is the lens selection. You will find a large choice of lens of character. Aside the usual german lens maker you can find little gem of diffrent european lens maker. How could you resist an Alpa with a beautiful Angenieux lens ? It places you aside the usual M3 with the usual Summicron.

  • What about the Minolta XE-7? It’s what some of the Leica SLRs are based on and it has an incredibly smooth film advance. It’s also a pure joy to handle!


  • I own an OM-1 and if it wasn’t for the clumsy film advance it would be absolutely perfect in every way. But then again most of the time I don’t even notice the clunky advance lever.
    Another of recent favorites has been a Minolta XD7/11. Smooth all the way, beautifully made, and it has one mechanical speed of 1/100 which can save you in most occasions except in very low light. I’ve been loving it more and more recently.
    But the OM-1 and the OM lenses will always be a favorite.

    • Late, I know, but you should consider seeking out another OM-1 copy. The film-advance levers vary pretty greatly. I stumbled upon a collection and tried five or six one right after the other; a few were grainy, a few lacked bounce on the return (the worst, imo), and a few were butter. Same with the OM-2N levers. Good copies are out there, though they’re hard to source unless you get your hands on them to test. Best of luck. I love the OM-1 and Zuiko glass, too.

  • The Pentax MX was in every way the SLR equal of a Leica M class camera.

    It had a modest shutter speed range topping out at 1/1000th, Same as Leica’s.

    It had cloth shutter, same as Leica.

    With a 50mm lens, except for the prism bump, it was the same size as a Leica.

    It was 100% battery independent other than the meter.

    I owned 5 Leica Ms, and 2 Pentax MXs… loved them both equally.

    • Good call. I was about to make the same suggestion.

    • Andrews in Austin, Texas March 1, 2020 at 11:23 am

      You picked a winner with the MX. A compact, rangefinder sized 35mm SLR, if there ever was one.

    • I came to suggest the MX too. The LX is an amazing camera (I used five for much of my career, plus another broken one I kept for parts, which I never needed) but it’s really not the ‘M’ of Pentax SLRs.

      The MX is smaller than the LX. It has rubberised silk shutter curtains rather than the titanium foil of the LX: as a result the LX shutter sound includes a high pitched ‘ping’ while the MX’s is much more of an M-like ‘snick’ – though still with a (quiet) ‘clonk’ from the mirror. The LX loses most of its shutter speeds if the battery dies, while the MX’s mechanical shutter carries on unaffected. In fact, taking the battery out of your MX will lose you the meter and the viewfinder LEDs, making it a bit more like a meterless M 😉

      There’s another less obvious point to make about the MX. Over its production run, Pentax steadily replaced metal parts with engineering plastics. This means that a late production example is a super-lightweight travelling companion – and that an early, all metal, example is very noticeably heavier. If someone craves that ‘M like’ feel of dense solidity, an early MX is the one to go for.

      Some of the SMC-M series lenses are really small too, certainly by SLR standards. The 85mm f2, for example, is smaller than some companies’ 50s and there are very small 50, 35 and 28mm options – and the minuscule 40mm f2.8, of course.

      • Just came across this article, and also came to vote for the MX. I shot a trio of Pentax’s professionally for years (For Pacific Stars & Stripes across the Pacific Rim, among others): Two LX’s and an MX. The LX’s were more advanced: TTL flash metering and such. The MX was everything you needed to take a photo… and nothing else. In many ways it’s the ideal film camera. BTB, I still have all my gear; those old M and A* lenses work wonderfully on my Pentax K70 and Sony a7rii. The LX’s no longer work; fixing their electronics would cost more than they are worth. I keep them because they were my work tools. The MX? The MX sits on my desk with film in it…

  • Shh don’t tell anyone. I have The Olympus Pen FT, is the quintessential version of the Pen series

  • Hi James, it’s a great post. Very thought provoking. As you point out, it is very hard to replicate the experience of shooting a Leica M camera in an SLR context. To me the sum of the Leica film experience exists in the strictly mechanical versions and from use of Leica lenses. My comparison is to the M3 owned for a long time outfitted with native Leica lenses. To refine things I’ll confine to 50mm-ish lenses. Looking at cameras that will operate without batteries the Nikon Fm2n fits the bill. It is beautifully made and equivalent in size to the M3. Nikon has several great 50mm lens choices and the high top shutter speed is a great plus compared to the Leica limitation, I am partial to the 50mm F 1.4 AIS – it is inexpensive and very good. I also like the 55mm F 3.5 macro lens, it is insanely sharp. The SLR focusing method is impossible to replicate of course, and because of that I don’t think any SLR can deliver all of the goods on a Leica shooting experience. Regardless, in the hands of a good photographer impressive imagery is there for the taking regardless of the tool.

  • In terms of build quality the Nikon F2 with eye level prism is the only camera that I have owned that comes close to a Leica m3 build quality. I would go as far to say its more durable. I love my Leica M3 and M4 though. I would never sell them. I would never sell my f2 either! the Nikon f2t might be even better(never held one). A mint f2t would cost the same price as an ok Leica m6

  • Dear James,

    I have the good fortune of never having tried the M3. I tried an M6 instead. I found it awkward to use and happily returned to my Leica R6.2, which for my taste is superior in every way. To me, the perfect camera is a question of time and place. I love to shoot slow with my Leicas, I love pocketing the ME Super with its lovely pancake lens, I will bring a Nikon to a stormy day on a coast and I shoot a Praktica when visiting my brother in Dresden. And I am enjoying each one greatly.

    Maybe there is nothing like a Leica M3 in the world of SLRs. For me, there doesnˋt have to be.

  • What a fun endeavor, there are many beautiful cameras to choose from, and save for the rare models these cameras are a bargain. My favorite film camera to shoot is a Nikon F3. Small, light and just the essentials, a bright viewfinder. Put a shoe over the rewind knob, and then a beautiful Leica viewfinder into the shoe and you have a Nikon M Leica with a super clear uncluttered view. After saying all that, my vote for most M like slr is the F2, it’s body is rounded beautifully and it’s solid mechanically, extreme quality, it was a refined F and perhaps Leica influenced the design with the M4. One more mention is the gorgeous Canon F1n, it’s a sheer joy to feel the mechanics of this camera.

  • I have a Yashica FX-3 2000 and it is nice and small and I am given to understand the C\Y mount Contax bodies are very nice too. They are also one of the cheapest ways into Zeiss (west german) glass.

  • Another option that is a beautiful affordable and small SLR but unfortunately doesn’t have interchangeable lenses is the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex from the early 50s but the 45mm Tessar is very nice.

  • I love this site, there is so much to read and think about, and then with which to disagree. Haha.
    Such as your claim the Leica shmeica M is the finest 35mm camera ever made. A serious error of judgement, no, Leica m’s are just overpriced paperweights compared to late production slrs, even Minoltas are better. 😂
    I agreed with you when you thought newer slrs are the best cameras, the other week. Formally speaking, an opinion is just a conclusion without at least two supporting premisses. Your previous argument that later slrs are superior is correct given the amount of evidence to support your conclusion. This post today, though finely written, and nicely articulated, is just an opinion. That is because the evidence is just not there to support your assertion. Do I sound like a tool? I agree, but also insist I am right. Humour me a little longer while I bleat on. Like any tool or instrument, we want our camera to do it’s job as smoothly and easily as possible, so we can do ours as smoothly as easily as possible. That is to take the best possible pictures we can within our level of ability. It is not to look cool or enjoy the feel of the mechanics. Those are personal preferences anyway, see, I prefer the winding arm of my Nikkormat FT over any Leica, and the general feel of it, the weight, the cheap crap plastileather, the irritating actuator etc. Does that make it a better camera? Sure, on your logic if I can motivate a greater number of the population to agree with me, the I am right.
    Rant over, thanks for the articles, if you’ve read this far, err, go to my group and laugh at my photos, your membership will double my numbers.

  • nataliesmartfilmphotography March 1, 2020 at 4:07 am

    I absolutely love using my Olympus Pen FT. The quality of the camera and the lenses are amazing. Considering it’s a half frame camera, I’m always amazed at the quality of the images I get from it.

  • No SLR can be as compact as a Leica M. The mirror box makes it impossible, and the lenses must be bigger and heavier to accommodate the auto-diaphragm. The Leicaflex SL2 is the perfect SLR. I own several.

    • Well, except for the ones that are.

      Put a 50/2 Summicron on an M3 and you get a package measuring 138 x 77 x 77mm and weighing 822g.
      Combine a Pentax MX with the gorgeous 43/1.9 Limited and it’s 136 x 83 x 76mm and just 640g.

      The SLR is a shade taller but noticeably lighter. Neither will fit in a typical coat pocket; either will go easily into a small bag with enough stuff for a day out. The compact alternative to an SLR is not a Leica, it’s a fixed-lens camera like an XA.

      • If I may suggest switching out the 50mm Summicron with the 50mm f/28 Elmar collapsible lens or the older 50mm f/2.0 Summicron collapsible lens.
        In the past, I’ve carried an M2 with t/Elmar, sans strap and a extra roll of film in a sports coat pocket. No problem. These days, its the 40mm f/2.0 M-Rokkor (again – without a shade and strap) in a coat pocket. However, your suggestion about the Pentax w/the 43mm lens is easily workable.
        Since the advent of larger cellular phones, men can get away with wearing cargo pants to accommodate EDC (in our case, a camera!) 🙂

      • But that’s not what James is looking for: he’s looking for an SLR that is like a Leica M3, and there simply isn’t such an animal. The OM-1 tried to be, but the execution was poor. The cameras are flimsy, and the lenses, though good, are simply not on the same level of quality as Leitz R or M lenses, either in optical or mechanical performance and feel.The Leica R4 though R7 are smallish and well made.

    • One of my Leica’s is the SL2, Beautiful photographic tool. There have been a fair number of small 35mm slr cameras that can certainly compete on weight alone, if not satisfying other aspects of James’ search. Many have been illustrated in these posts. Size, though, is very much more than a camera’s dimensions. “Perceived size” is something completely different, IMO, and stems from feedback we get when holding a camera. The only camera that can offer the perception of small size in our hands is still the Zenit-C. And indeed it will be slightly smaller than an M.

      I half jokingly suggested this in my initial post, but it wasn’t intended as a serious contender for James from a practical photographic point of view, but more for how it felt in one’s hands. Being based on the Zorki 1 rangefinder body, itself a derivative of a Leica II, I believe, it feels like holding a Barnack Leica as the pentaprism doesn’t figure. Given the design of the body, the haptic feedback is exactly the same.

  • I have no experience with Leicas but In my long search for a nice and small SLR with good looks but not that old I always felt tempted for two models: the Voigtlander Bessaflex TM (made in this century, high quality design), the Contax S2 (maybe a bit big)
    Economical constraints made me choose a Japanese Canon Eos 7 (Elan 7e), I love the photos I make with it and the way it turns invisible when shooting with it, but I’d wish I could customize it somehow : )

  • Ha, it was pretty funny for me to read this article. I agree that Leica M’s are the best (though I do prefer my M6 to the M2). But that’s also because I’m a rangefinder guy. When I shot digital, I think I might have been the only person who shot the Fuji X-Pro2 pretty much exclusively with the OVF, an admittedly imperfect system that isn’t actually a rangefinder, which is part of what drove me to see it all to get an M6. And just spent a fair chunk of change to go from a fantastic 6×6 in the Minolta Autocord to a Mamiya 6, because I’m a rangefinder guy. Anyways, so the funny part is, I’ve wished over and over again that I was an SLR guy instead. Because there’s so many incredible SLR’s (and TLR’s) for so much less money than rangefinders (the Mamiya’s are every bit as pricey as the Leica’s, and they’re not even fully mechanical cameras that should be usable for the rest of my lifetime). So I guess I should be grateful I’m a rangefinder guy, because maybe I’d never find the perfect SLR for me anyways.

    • If you like the Mamiya 6 but want an all mechanical rangefinder, you should take a look at the original ‘Texas Leica’.

      The Fujica G690Bl / G670BL are completely mechanical, very flat film path, and very accurate rangefinders. The interchangeable lenses for the big Fujicas are simply superb. Incredibly heavy cameras, but the results make it all worthwhile.

  • Surprised no one has yet mentioned Nikon F with prism (no meter) finder and — pentax spotmatic II or thereabouts era.

  • Hello,
    I reread your post several times to make sure, but you talk generically of an SLR with M quality.. 35mm as a film size is only mentionned in passing further into your examination.. So wanting to be the devil’s advocate here, I am going to propose that the Hasselblad 500 C/M is the SLR of M quality. It is compact (for medium format), has one of the sweetest bayonet mounts with a short throw which possibly infulenced the M’s bayonet mount short throw, which continue to be my 2 favourite mounts. The Hasselbad is fully mechanical, has mechanical gears and levers to ensure that the camera work only when in the correct state. It is an SLR either through it’s compact waist level viewfinder or more SLResque prism viewfinders. The lenses are german made, like Leica’s and made by Karl Zeiss, so quality is assured, and the all-metal nature of the original C lenses (CF introduced a lot of plastic and printed vs engraved markers) again remember M quality lenses. So there you have it, an SLR that matches the M’s quality.

    If however you object to the medium format Hasselblad’s inclusion in the competition, then I have another trick up my sleeve.

    The Nikon F2. Unlike Leica which cheapened it’s products with each successive release after the M3, Nikon has sought to improve theirs with each new release. The Nikon F1 of 1959 fame introduced the new F bayonet mount, and the F2 improved greatly on the watchlike precision of the original F1. The sounds are different from both winding and shutter release, as the inherent design differences between rangefinder and slr dictate, however the F2 is remarkably well put together. The wind on lever is reassuringly positive, although perfection is reached with the F3’s silky smooth and effortless mecchanism (someone else commented they didn’t like that, so opinions are bound to be different). Unlike the F3’s dependance on electronics, similar to Leica’s own M7, the F2 though makes do with mechanical perfection (sorry Leica MP!) and with it’s eyelevel viewfinder becomes as elegant as an M3 (The best M in my opinion..) and just as dependant on the photographer’s eye to achieve proper exposure. The kerfafle to open the film chamber on the F2 is possibly inspired by the Leica baseplate, though more practical with the swinging back than the latter. It is also miles safer than the FM3a’s cheapened system of pull up the respooling lever. When you hold an F2 you get a sense of solidity, simplicity, and immediate function. The filmholder window on the back of the F2 is not as elegant as Leica’s simply brilliant rotating ISO dial that even tells you if you’re shooting B&W, daytime or tungsten balanced colour film! However it pressure-weighted, meaning the tab won’t slip out by accident. The F2 is truly well designed and built, and today after almost 50 years (released in 1971) it is just as dependable, repairable and usable as it was when released. A minor quible on the design front.. the eyelevel viewfinder of the original F is more beautiful, but in true Nikon fashion the viewfinders between the 2 models are interchangeable, and therefore you can marry the design of the original F with the mechanical perfection of the later F2 to achieve Leica M of the SLR world quality.

    I rest my case (well, both of them)

    • Agreed. Have your F2 Soverized and your grandchildren will still be using it. For non-professional F mount EDC would recommend the FM2/T with Voiglander 40mm F2 Ultron.

    • I know.. I know.. you shouldn’t flog a dead horse.. but after scouring the internet for something film related to read, I chanced upon this gem from 2020, and my very own comment above! (The article was the gem, not my post!). Since I wrote my original comment, an important thing happened.. I found an “elusive” Nikon F Nippon Kogaku early serial number unit for a song, and I am now it’s proud owner. The F completes my collection of Nikon professional film cameras, and why I left it so late to acquire the first is beyond me. In my comment above I waxed lyrical about the F2’s mechanical perfection, to make it the SLR equivalent of the Leica M3. However I have to rethink my conclusion, after handling and using the Nikon F, it’s older and simpler brother. Whereas the F2 perfects the F premise, the older camera is rather purer and closer to the ideal camera, and closer even in philosophy to the Leica M. That the Nikon F was released a mere 5 years after the M3 makes it probable that the M3 inspired the later camera, albeit with the F taking a wholly different route by incorporating the pentaprism (hence SLR). The Nikon F’s baseplate removal also mirrors the Leica M (and older threadmount model’s) baseplate.. A kerfafle if there ever was one, but undeniably made for a much sturdier camera and probably a better light seal as well. Of course the Nikon F included a metered finder as well, or the simpler eyelevel viewfinder – your choice. So you could choose basic and lightweight, or modern (and heavy). In this sense it is a step up from the Leica M, offering CHOICE… but in it’s purest most basic form is a rugged light-proof box built to a similar (though not equal) standard as the Leica M3. Also it has endured the test of time, as my model, a 1960 unit, is just as capable and functional today as my 1955 Leica M3. So yes, the Nikon F.. a worthy “Leica M” SLR!

      • Like your thoughts here. The “purity” of the Nikon F may in part be related to its “simplicity”, though none of these cameras are simple. Would be curious to know what finder your Nikon F has? Maybe a picture of your camera?

        • Hi there MMarquardt,
          My Nikon F is with the eyelevel viewfinder, the simplest and most compact. The metered prism for the F is a bit of a pain to use, as batteries are nonexistant, unlike the F2. My eyelevel viewfinder is still very clean without any chips or delamination on the silvered edges.. thankfully. Bought it from a collector who obviously was searching for the perfect F and offloaded an earlier and less perfect specimen. To me it is perfect, small(ish), compact(ish).. brutally angular and all.. or mostly metal. My model is from 1960, so still has the metal winding lever, same as the M3. The M3 is superior in terms of materials and mechanics, but not light-years ahead.. There is a heft to the M3, which the F replicates, though does not quite equal. Still, as an SLR it is, I believe, the perfect Leica M Slr.. and that’s all there is to it (for me! Others will have their favourite!). Sadly no photo of my camera.. I wouldn’t know how to upload it.. but also I’m currently travelling and didn’t have space to bring it along! Upon return I will put the F through it’s paces and hopefully it will produce some decent images. Working without a lightmeter, I’ll have to guestimate exposure, but a forgiving black and white film should take my exposure mistakes in it’s stride. Cheers

  • hahaha and I thought this was a serious article. it’s the blog of a shop, a debate click-bait – no more.

    LOL! Wasted Time. No worries, I’ll filter this out.

    • This website has ten paid writers who each possess their own opinions. I own a camera shop. My opinions are never influenced by this fact. I tell people to buy their stuff wherever they want. Consequently, I’m basically making no money running this site. It is essentially a labor of love that I engage in at great expense to myself in order to hopefully help some people enjoy their photography more than they might if my site didn’t exist. For the record, I lose about $10,000 per year running this site. Comments like yours make me feel like saving myself the hassle and shutting this money pit down.

      • James, well said. Keep up the good work.

      • I don’t say it enough, James, but I love the website and value the writing on it. It’s a wonderful resource, as is the affiliated online store (from which I have bought quality stuff, as well as a monthly delivery of film from the club). Keep up the work and please don’t let the toxic people get you down.

      • Not sure about that guy.. CP’s our top 5 go-to websites.

      • Screw that guy. James, your site is great and I hope it runs forever. I always look forward to new articles and several of my purchases have been influenced by you and your team. And for finding something like the Leica. I can’t compare anything to the Lecia rangefinders as I don’t particularly like rangefinders, I’ve tried using loaners from some of my friends, I dont get the sever gear worship, extension of my eye thing like you were talking about others saying. But the F3 or the OM-1 are my pinnicle of mechanically wound film cameras.

    • its your perception of reality that has you upset at this article. Surely not the title, the author, the site, or anything. it is your assumptive demeanor which is upset by the fact of what you THOUGHT was contained in this article, was not actually. Your logic is deeply flawed as well, much like your intellect. Looking for a real ‘serrrious’ article to satisfy the likes of such a scholar like yourself, from a site with Casual in the name. LOL!

  • Castelli Daniel March 9, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    Go get ‘em! Lookit, I like the site. I now live in a photo desert. With the loss of my local camera store, and the dispersal of the customers, I use these sites to say informed, to read differing opinions and to feel connected. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

  • mike in colorado March 9, 2020 at 9:15 pm

    Fun article!

    Currently my most-used 35mm SLR is a Leica R6.2. There may be some plastic bits in there, but it’s relatively compact, takes Leica glass, and feels great in the hand. If there’s one feature of the r6.2 that I think makes it ‘un-leica’ it’s that repairs are hard to get. I think one that keeps the Leica M so popular is that lots and lots of decent repair techs can handle them and do a good job. The SLR that best fits that description in my book is the Nikon F2 with plain prism viewfinder. It’s not as compact as an M, but when you look at the whole 35mm rangefinder world, the M isn’t that compact, it’s very well made. The F2 fits that description also, not all that compact for a 35mm SLR and very well made. Great viewfinder. Compare its size to a mid 90s SLR, and you might even call it compact.

    Pick your reasons that the M is great and then look for the SLR with equivalent greatness. If it’s size, you won’t pick the F2, if it’s build quality and repairability, you might.

  • I owned a Leica R4S for several years and enjoyed using it. It was compact, well built, and handled well. I confess that I primarily used Tamron Adaptal lenses which I found very satisfactory as well as economical. The only problem I had was with the foam light seals, but Leica US sent me replacements gratis, which I much appreciated. I second the comments re the F2. I still have my black F2 Photomic with non-AI 24/2.8 Nikkor and shudder at how much it would cost to get equivalent build and optical quality in the DSLR age.

    Kudos to James Tocchio and the Casual Photophile website!

  • Yes, there’s nothing like an M, M3 M2 M4 (and yes, I’ll include the M5, not the ‘classic’ design/style and bigger, but refined for use, super well made and with ‘advantages’). I’ve been pretty dedicated to M-series over more than a few decades as my camera of choice. So, here are a few SLRs that have gotten my notice trying to find a ‘match.’

    The recent purchase of a Pentax SV for my son has me pretty enthusiastic. The size/shape has an M-series familiarity. The screen isn’t super bright, but nice in every other way, It’s shutter fairly quiet and release smooth. Camera and Takumar lenses are really well made. With the combination of quality, handling, and low prices, I even decided to buy myself an original 1957 Pentax AP. It’s still not an M, but well…

    The ALPA 9d. Amazing built quality, the right size/shape, and feels like a tank. Not the brightest finder. Odd placement of shutter release/wind-on, but this is just a very nice camera in the hands once you get used to that.

    I used Leica SL/SL2 and then R-series for many years. As we used to say, use a Leicaflex for the lenses. Still think they are great cameras, with the non-electronics SL being my favorite.

    But I’m going to throw something out here I haven’t seen anyone else mention. The Original Leicaflex. It’s an M3 shutter with a simple mirror box, the 60s excellent Leica fit and finish quality, a built-in MR meter (if it still works ;-), smooth and sure in operation. And as for the finder everyone dismisses… think of it like looking through a M-finder. It’s super bright!, like M-series RF bright, and as for that center circular only focusing… well, the Leica-M only focuses in the centered RF patch too. It’s bigger, yes, but feels reassuringly solid and heavy. And except for that size, it was Leica’s ‘original’ answer to their M-series after all.

  • I am with you James. I have held a few Leicas myself, never had the fortune of owning one, and can say that the feelign is a lot different that most other cameras. I feel the Olympus Pen F, FT or FV will be the one that fits this description. The original F has a bright viewfinder. If you want a light meter then the FT might be your thing. The FV takes the two before t and merges them together. The original F even has a double stroke just like the M3. I got a Pen F and it took away my feeling that I needed to get a Leica. The closest I have come to a Leica is my Nikon S2 which has the same form factor as the Olympus Pen F. And the Olympus glass on the Pens are wonderful. I don’t know. Each person has their ideal. For me, My Pen FT hits the spot and if I want a rangefinder feel then the Nikon S2 hits the spot for me.

    Thanks for all the great articles. I look forward to reading them all the time ever since I found this sight a few years ago. Keep up the great work that you do!

  • James, This article has been bouncing around in my head for the last couple weeks –It seems like most of my least justifiable purchases are in pursuit of this allusive quest. I really like the case you’ve laid out for the Pen. From personal experience i would agree to the comparison -with one caveat: The olympus pen is the leica IIIf of SLR’s -Maitani’s love for Leica really comes through using it, but I feel it’s really based on his experience with the small screwmount cameras. So I would say if there were a true Leica M of SLR’s it would be the successor to the Pen, like how the screwmount cameras preceded the M, but alas there was no true Pen II and even though the OM is brilliant and took alot of lessons from the Pen, I think we both can agree something just falls short…The quest continues!

    • Yes, great point. Maitani was indeed inspired by the pre-M Leica’s. And yes, my quest continues as well… Ha! Happy shooting to you pal.

  • I’m not yet a camera geek like you, James. I’ve never used a Leica as I have a tendency to dismiss technlogy snobs, proably to my detriment. I made the journey from a Pentax P3 (because my Dad owned a Spotmatic II) to early Sony point-n-shoot (because Dad liked Sony electronics) to Nikon DSLR (because a good friend used Nikon) to Fuji X mirrorless (because all those knobs felt right) and now back to the Spotmatic II (just because).

    I wish I could rent a NIkon FM or film Pentax F (I’ve never head of half-frame cameras until your article) or Olympus OM-1 (my good friend loves his OM-D E-M1). I may rent the digital PEN F.

  • I get what you’re looking for and I sort of had the same ‘need’.
    After looking and trying a few I indeed settled on the Nikon F3, for me the best build and most intuitive SLR out there.An FM3A comes close but the build of the F3 and its smoothness is, in my opinon, unmatched.
    Its slightly larger then the M but a real joy to use and has the certain something which gives me pride in using it every time, much the same as my M4.

    Good hunting.

  • I started collecting cameras while at school. By age 18, I had 92. (Around 1988) Including a Leica 3G and a nice little film SLR, the Contax 139 Quartz. It came with a Carl Zeiss Plannar lens. Beautiful camera, great optics. Sadly deceased now, but at the time very usable. I was shooting school theatre productions and the lack of a noisy motor drive was ideal.

  • First off, you won’t find a camera built like a Leica M without paying what one pays for Leica Ms – new and used. Second, your built-in meter phobia is hilarious. Third, comparing a Pen F – or any Olympus to a Leica M in build quality also is hilarious- and I say that not only as someone who shot with film and digital Olympuses, but as someone who was at one point in the Olympus Visionary group. That said, the all mechanical OM 3 – except for its meter, and the OM4, are SLR gems. And the Olympus glass is close to the best in the SLR world. But then there is the underlying nonsense in all of this – and that’s the objectification of old film cameras; they were and are nothing but boxes to hold film and a lens. How about less breathlessness about the mythical qualities of these boxes and a little more thought about the question: why film? But then maybe none of this is it really about photography.

  • I only recently finally got a Leica M, and I increasingly get what articles like this one are on about. So smooth, so purpose-built, great lenses. It really feels like using something special, and that’s already part of the fun. I thought I was mostly a SLR shooter, but I’m starting to appreciate that my previous rangefinders just weren’t good enough 🙂
    Before, I owned a pair of Leica R6, and fully agree on your words on those. The lenses great, but as a camera body, just not that special.

    The one thing though I never quite get is that out of all Nikons, it’s the FM3a that tends to pop up in lists like this. I’m sure they’re brilliant cameras – and I’m a biased happy Nikon user. But happily using a FM2 – much cheaper than a FM3a, easier to find too, and so terribly competent. No, it doesn’t feel as smooth and solid as my M4, but as a tool to make images, hard to flaw. Lenses are larger, but the pretty magnificent 50mm f/2 Nikkor isn’t too large or heavy.
    As the FM2 is that much cheaper, I find it easy to forgive that it’s not as silky smooth as a Leica.

  • Stefano Capriotti July 7, 2022 at 6:23 am

    You didn’t mention the Minolta Srt.
    What do you think in comparison to the Leica M3?

  • Nice article. As an M3 user and an OM-1 user, I think you should stick with the Olympus. It is truly wonderful!

  • This is an interesting tough, and lots of great comments. No love for Nikon FM? But might be not as smooth as an M3 . .
    F2 meterless could be it. Thinking of last time i used a camera with great film advance, must have been my Nikon SP that “Ups santa” delivered just before christmas. A great classic, and Nikon, but no SLR. Visoflex then 😉

  • I have been on the same hunt since I got back into film photography in 2010. At one point or another, I have owned an M2, M3, M4, M6TTL, R4, R5, R6, R7 in the Leica line, OM-1, OM-2 in Olympus, XE-7 and XD in Minolta, F-1 New in Canon, Spotmatic, LX and MX in Pentax and a Rollei SL35. In Nikon; F, F2, F3, FE, FE2, FM2n. Like you, I can appreciate Leica and quality and feel, but I am not a rangefinder guy. After trying all of these cameras, the ones that come closet to being the Leica M of SLRs for me are the FE and FM2n after a good CLA. Compact, well built, simple cameras. My favorite lens to use on these is the 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens (serial numbers starting with a 2. Later versions don’t seem quite as well made, but that’s my opinion). I also just bought a lovely early production model of the Nikon FM and it seems quite nice as well. That will go out for CLA soon.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

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